Just a little bit less

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on my work recently, via different channels, and some of it stung. Every bit was fair and well-intentioned, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear that I have plenty of room for improvement. 

So two weeks ago I created a new goal for myself: Get better at accepting critical feedback on your work.

I tend to beat myself up over negative feedback and fall into an unproductive shame spiral. Sometimes I get angry; sometimes I get defensive. A weight sits on my chest for a few days while I obsess over what I did or what I might have done differently. Eventually it fades away, leaving behind a vague uneasy feeling like a small bruise. It’s an emotional reaction to what ought to be an opportunity for thoughtfulness, but I’d never considered how it could be different.

Getting critical feedback often feels very isolating. Few people share the feedback they receive; we don’t like to admit that we’re not perfect, either to ourselves or to other people. Greg Hoy wrote an incredibly honest article last year about the feedback he got from his employees at Happy Cog; I look back at it sometimes to remind myself that I’m not the only person falling short of my own measure of success. 

I also try to remember something a leadership executive told me about his own experience getting critical reviews and feedback. “I hear the same stuff every time,” he said. “I make the same mistakes over and over again. We all do. Every day I go into the office, and I just try to hold it in the road. I try to fuck up just a little bit less than I did the day before. Sometimes I succeed.”

That’s the dirty little secret of personal growth and improvement: it’s super hard. 

We work in an industry obsessed with big wins. Fail fast! Break things! $1 billion acquisition! Ship it! But hacking yourself is a lot more complicated than debugging a piece of code. Changing patterns you’ve had since before you could write your own name doesn’t happen overnight. 

For me, getting better at accepting critical feedback begins with having a realistic sense of what’s possible. I have to get used to hearing the same criticisms for awhile, and reminding myself that doesn’t mean I’m a failure. Success doesn’t have to mean annihilating all of my flaws at once; it can simply mean fucking up just a little bit less.